Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts.

My first day of 10th grade English class the teacher could barely walk in the door.  He carried in a cardboard file storage box and slowly laid it on the table at the front of the room.  Grabbing the first yellow brick off the top he dropped it next to the box and even from a short couple of inches the thing slammed onto table, sending reverberations that seemed to shake the room.  The brick was wrapped in plastic, and after a closer look turned out to be a book.  That year, he announced, we would be reading exclusively from it.  And while our backs would suffer from the weight of it, the delight it would bring to our minds would more than make up for it.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  We read Poe, Whitman, Hawthorne, and James.  I remember turning the thin rice paper pages with such care, never wanting to accidentally skip a page and miss even one piece of the fruit such vibrant stories and poetry.  Try as I might, the book always jostled around in my bag during the day, and the well over thousand pages would be dog eared sporadically from the bottom, as if the blank corners were reaching inside to touch the rich words within.  I lovingly unfurled the pages, restoring the original right corners and was often gifted with the surprise of a new author on an uncharted page.  That was the first year I read with a pencil in hand, marring the immortal pages of print with my own notes.  I still have that book, notes and all.  It sits very close to me in my office.


Our Torah has much of the same makeup.  There are many different sources, many different hands that offered the sacred words of our tradition, inspired and bolstered by the vibrancy of our community and the ethics and values it espouses.  The many writings compiled into our own anthology of early Jewish literature.  There are a myriad of theories about exactly this came about, but the most popular is the Documentary Hypothesis that assembles all of the writers into 4 groups, J, D, E, and P.  J for the author that uses the name YHVH for God, D for the author of Deuteronomy, E for the author that uses the name Elohim for God, and P for the priests of the temple who were mainly the authors of Leviticus.  The writing did not end with those few however, every person who reads our texts lends their voice to our tradition, and without our voices together we leave letters out of scripture.  I want to take a journey together through one of the verses that Cantor Roger just read, drawing in other voices from our tradition.  Rather than a sermon, I’d like to think of this as a D’var Torah, an exploration into a particular Torah text, and open up the disparate voices of our tradition on it.


The line from our reading that struck me, and has always struck me, says “cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.”[1]  What is this thickening exactly?  What is it that causes us to encase our hearts in hard stuff, to cocoon?  Our text from likely 2500 years ago, simply knows that this happens, and implores us to take steps to remove this barrier.  In its beautiful way, the text both instructs us to act, giving language that clearly commands, but also presents the inherent questions that come up from how exactly to act on it.


Our Talmud, perhaps the first of our great commentaries on the Torah, and that is comprised largely of texts from around 2000 years ago, roughly half a century after the writing of Deuteronomy, examines this verse further.  The text likens this thing that wraps itself around our hearts, this thing that we are commanded to remove, to the inclination to do wrong.[2]  The drive that our tradition attributes to each one of us: that we all have the ability, even a deep seeded part of us, that encourages us to do wrong.  There is a gem here, and like so many of the gems that we find in our textual tradition it requires a little bit of scratching beneath the surface.  We are inclined to do the wrong thing when there is something that keeps us from expressing what is deep in our hearts, not only implying that suppression causes us to act out with the violence we see all too often by those downtrodden and trampled upon, but that when we barricade our hearts, when we don’t allow ourselves to empathize with the people around us, we take one step further from the kind of world that we want to live in.  To say it in other words, we build a better world when we remove the barriers between people.


“cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.”


1000 years ago, roughly a full to a half century after the great academies that produced the Talmud had dissolved, another great commentator, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, takes note of the same verse.  In his Guide to the Perplexed, he explains that it is essential that we listen to the words of one another, that Judaism has at its core an injunction to be good towards each other.  And when he looks to the Torah to find a verse that will prove his point, a classic form of our teachers throughout our tradition, he cites “cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.”  When we cut away the barriers between people, it allows us to be good to one another, a reminder to be vulnerable to other people, that part of kindness is openness.


Rashi, a commentator from a short 50 years before Maimonides, took a different approach to our same verse.  Rashi understood the same words as saying that we sometimes barricade ourselves from being impacted, from being inspired.  For Rashi, this meant keeping ourselves from taking the words of the Torah to heart.  In order to be moved by something, we have to open our heart to it.  That there is so much beauty in our world, but that we often close ourselves off to it, and so we need a reminder: enjoy, there is so much to learn, so much to experience.


Finally we have Sforno, a commentator from about 500 years ago, who furthers Rashi’s approach to the verse, wondering about the things that keep us from being able to have an open heart, about the makeup of that thickening that covers the heart.  For Sforno, it is our prejudices, the things that we assume to be true, but don’t investigate with intellectual integrity, that we are told to remove from our hearts.  These things keep us from being able to truly encounter other people always blocking off our hearts with false information and assumptions.


“cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.”


And so we cut away the things that thicken around our hearts, revealing what is both at the heart of ourselves, and revealed at the center of our Jewish faith.  That we should find our love for each other.  Words that enter our minds but speak of and to our hearts.  May we all find just a little bit more love this shabbat, removing the things that keep us from one another, and draw us just a little more close together.